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April 23, 2001

Child custody survey affront to Parliament: critics

Further study underway: Important changes for fathers delayed, Liberal rebels say

Chris Cobb
Ottawa Citizen
National Post

OTTAWA - A federal government survey on custody, access and child support is a contemptuous affront to Parliament and an attempt to delay much-needed changes to the Divorce Act, two prominent Liberals charge.

The federal Justice Department has mailed thousands of surveys to politicians, family law specialists and other "stakeholders" across the country. Each package comprises a 64-page information booklet outlining possible options to change federal, provincial and territorial law related to separation, divorce and children. A Feedback Booklet asks recipients which options they prefer.

The package is labelled Putting Children's Interests First.

"This isn't about children," said Liberal MP Roger Gallaway. "It's about the people who developed these booklets who are more interested in maintaining the status quo. It isn't the job of the federal Justice Department to be doing surveys on custody and access, it's their job to implement the will of Parliament."

Mr. Gallaway was co-chairman of a joint Senate-Commons committee that spent a year holding hearings into custody and access. The committee heard harrowing stories, mostly from fathers and grandparents who had been cut off from children and grandchildren after marriage breakdowns.

The cornerstone of the committee's report was a new concept called shared parenting, that would normally give both parents the legal right to be involved in the upbringing of their children.

The committee presented its report, For the Sake of the Children, to Parliament in December, 1998, and Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, officially responded six months later, saying more study was needed. The new consultation booklets were issued by her department shortly before Easter.

Anne Cools, a Liberal Senator and the most vocal parliamentarian in calling for changes to the Divorce Act, said the Justice Department's booklets are amateurish and a wanton disregard for the will of Parliament.

"The minister has all the information she needs to change the act," said Ms. Cools. "Professional polls have been done and they show Canadians are overwhelmingly in favour of change. Our committee held extensive consultations. What we need is change to a law that is causing untold suffering to tens of thousands of Canadians. This so-called consultation is not worthy of the Department of Justice and lacks legitimacy."

Virginia McRae, general counsel of the Justice Department's Family, Children and Youth section, said the survey is designed to build on the work of the joint committee, not ignore it. "The special joint committee served a very valuable purpose and raised some real, valid issues that were important for us to hear," she said. "So what we are doing now is offering some possible solutions and consulting Canadians about them. Perhaps we appear to be taking a long time, but this subject is too important and too complex for simple solutions. We want to get it right."

Recipients of the survey are asked to respond by June, and Ms. McRae said the justice minister will report back to Parliament on child support, custody and access, possibly within a year. It is undecided whether the minister will table a new divorce bill, or a report.

Ms. Cools said the wait is unacceptable. "All data show that beyond any doubt, children of divorce must have a continuing and meaningful involvement with both parents," she said. "It will be at least five years since we started this process. We know thousands are suffering. This inaction borders on ministerial negligence. Five years in the life of children is an eternity."

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